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Townes, Charles Hard

Charles Townes was born in Greenville, SC. Townes received his B.S. degree in physics and modern languages from Furman University in 1935. He went on to obtain his M.S. degree in physics at Duke University in 1936, and his Ph.D. in physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1939. From 1939 to 1947, he worked on the technical staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories. In 1948, he joined the faculty of Columbia University where he taught physics. From 1959 to 1961, Townes served as vice president and director of research of the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington, D.C. He then was appointed provost and professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One of Townes greatest accomplishments was his invention of the Maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission) in 1953. The Maser is a device that amplifies electromagnetic waves. It can be used as a means for the sensitive reception of communications and for precise navigation. In developing the Maser, Townes built on a dynamic new idea. He discovered that the molecules of certain substances can be coaxed into producing microwaves - not fast-cooking ovens, but short electromagnetic waves.

The invention of the Maser was a huge success, being used to amplify radio signals and as an ultrasensitive detector for space research. But in 1957, not satisfied to simply enjoy his success, Townes kept contemplating about how the Maser worked, and decided there was no reason why the same principles could not be equally well applied to light beams. Only three years later, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission (the Laser) was born.

As well as being useful tools in the laboratory, both Masers and Lasers have found many applications in radar, communications, astronomy, navigation, atomic clocks, surgery, and industry.

Townes was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Physics for his advances in the field of quantum electronics.